A drop of the hard stuff, p.2
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.2

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 2

  “I missed that. ”

  “But I think I’d have picked him anyway. He looked familiar to me, and I can’t think why. ”

  “Well, he’s got a yellow sheet. Maybe you saw his handsome face in a book of mug shots. High-Low Jack, they call him. Ring a bell?”

  It didn’t. I asked his last name, and then repeated it myself—“Jack Ellery, Jack Ellery”—and then something clicked.

  “I knew him back when I was a kid,” I said. “Jesus, I haven’t seen him since grade school. ”

  “Well,” Lonergan said, “I’d say the two of you took different career paths. ”

  The next time I saw him was years later. In the meantime I had left the NYPD and moved from a split-level house in Syosset to a hotel room just west of Columbus Circle. I didn’t look for a job, but jobs found me, and I wound up functioning as a sort of unlicensed private eye. I didn’t keep track of expenses and I didn’t furnish written reports, and the people who hired me paid me in cash. Some of the cash paid for my hotel room, and a larger portion covered my tab at the bar around the corner, where I took most of my meals, met most of my clients, and spent most of my time. And if there was anything left over, I bought a money order and sent it to Syosset.

  Then, after too many blackouts and too many hangovers, after a couple of trips to detox and at least one seizure, the day came when I left a drink untouched on top of a bar and found my way to an AA meeting. I’d been to meetings before, and I’d tried to stay sober, but I guess I hadn’t been ready, and I guess this time I was. “My name’s Matt,” I told a roomful of people, “and I’m an alcoholic. ”

  I hadn’t said that before, not the whole sentence, and saying it is no guarantee of sobriety. Sobriety’s never guaranteed, it always hangs by a thread, but I left that meeting feeling that something had shifted. I didn’t have a drink that day, or the day after, or the day after that, and I kept going to meetings and stringing the days together, and I must have been somewhere in the middle of my third month of sobriety when I next encountered Jack Ellery. I’d had my last drink on the thirteenth of November, so it would have been the last week of January or the first week of February, something like that.

  I know I couldn’t have had three full months yet, because I remember that I raised my hand and gave my day count, and you only do that for the first ninety days. “My name’s Matt,” you say, “and I’m an alcoholic, and today is Day Seventy-seven. ” And everybody says, “Hi, Matt,” and then it’s somebody else’s turn.

  This was at a three-speaker meeting on East Nineteenth Street, and after the second speaker they had a secretary’s break, when they made announcements and passed the basket. People with anniversaries announced them, and drew applause, and the newbies shared their day counts, and then the third speaker told his story and wrapped it all up by ten o’clock so we could all go home.

  I was on my way out the door when I turned at the sound of my name and there was Jack Ellery. My seat was in the front, so I hadn’t noticed him earlier. But I knew him at a glance. He looked older than he had on the other side of the one-way glass, and there was more in his face than the years alone could account for. There’s no charge for the seats in an AA room, but that’s because you pay for them in advance.

  “You don’t recognize me,” he said.

  “Sure I do. You’re Jack Ellery. ”

  “Jesus, you’ve got some memory. What were we, twelve, thirteen years old?”

  “I think I was twelve and you were thirteen. ”

  “Your dad had the shoe store,” he said. “And you were a class behind me, and one day I realized I hadn’t seen you in a while, and nobody knew where you went. And the next time I passed the shoe store, it was gone. ”

  “Like most of his business ventures. ”

  “He was a nice man, though. I remember that. Mr. Scudder. He impressed the hell out of my mother one time. He had that machine, you stood with your feet in the opening and it gave you some sort of X-ray picture of them. She was all set to spring for a new pair of shoes, and your dad said my feet hadn’t grown enough to need ’em. ‘That’s an honest man, Jackie,’ she said on the way home. ‘He could have taken advantage and he didn’t. ’ ”

  “One of the secrets of his success. ”

  “Well, it made an impression. Jesus, old times in the Bronx. And now we’re both of us sober. You got time for a cup of coffee, Matt?”


  WE SAT ACROSS from each other in a booth in a diner on Twenty-third Street. He took his coffee with a lot of cream and sugar. Mine was black. The only thing I ever put in it was bourbon, and I didn’t do that anymore.

  He remarked again on my having recognized him, and I said it worked both ways, he’d recognized me. “Well, you said your name,” he said. “When you gave your day count. You’ll be coming up on ninety pretty soon. ”

  Ninety days is a sort of probationary period. When you’ve been clean and dry for ninety days, you’re allowed to tell your story at a meeting, and to hold various group offices and service positions. And you can stop raising your hand and telling the world how many days you’ve got.

  He’d been sober sixteen months. “That year,” he said. “I had a year the last day of September. I never thought I’d make that year. ”

  “They say it’s tough right before an anniversary. ”

  “Oh, it wasn’t any more difficult then. But, see, I more or less took it for granted that a year of sobriety was an impossible accomplishment. That nobody stayed sober that long. Now my sponsor’s sober almost six years, and there’s enough people in my home group with ten, fifteen, twenty years, and it’s not like I pegged them as liars. I just thought I was a different kind of animal, and for me it had to be impossible. Did your old man drink?”

  “That was the other secret of his success. ”

  “Mine too. In fact he died of it. It was just a couple of years ago, and what gets me is he died alone. His liver went on him. My ma was gone already, she had cancer, so he was alone in the world, and I couldn’t be at his bedside where I belonged because I was upstate. So he died in a bed all by himself. Man, that’s gonna be one tough amends to make, you know?”

  I didn’t want to think about the amends I’d have to make. Just put that on the shelf, Jim Faber told me more than once. You’ve got two things to do today, and one is go to a meeting and the other is don’t drink. Get both of those things right and all the rest will come along when it’s supposed to.

  “You went on the cops, Matt. Or am I mixing you up with somebody else?”

  “No, you got it right. That ended a few years ago, though. ”

  He lifted a hand, mimed knocking back a drink, and I nodded. He said, “I don’t know if you would have heard, but I went the other way. ”

  “I may have heard something. ”

  “When I say I was upstate, it was as a guest of the governor. I was at Green Haven. It wasn’t exactly up there with the Brinks Job and the Great Train Robbery. What I did, I picked up a gun and walked into a liquor store. And it’s not like it was the first time. ”

  I didn’t have a response to that, but he didn’t seem to require one. “I had a decent lawyer,” he said, “and he fixed it so I took a plea to one charge and they dropped the others. You know what was the hardest part? You got to do what they call allocute. You familiar with the term?”

  “You have to stand up in court and say what you did. ”

  “And I hated the idea. Just flat-out hated it. I was looking for a way around it. ‘Can’t I just say guilty and let it go at that?’ But my guy tells me no, you do it the way they want, you say what you did. Well, it’s that or I blow the plea deal, so I’m not completely crazy and I do what I’m supposed to do. And you want to know something? The minute it’s out, I got this rush of relief. ”

  “Because it was over. ”

  He shook his head. “Because it was out there. Because I said it, I copped to it. There’s the Fifth
Step in a nutshell, Matt. You own up in front of God and everybody and it’s a load off your mind. Oh, it wasn’t the last load, it was just one small part of it, but when the program came along and they told me what I was gonna have to do, it made sense to me right from the jump. I could see how it would work. ”

  AA’s twelve steps, Jim Faber had told me, weren’t there to keep you sober. Not drinking was what kept you sober. The steps were to make sobriety comfortable enough so that you didn’t feel the need to drink your way out of it, and I’d get to them in due course. So far I had admitted that I was powerless over alcohol, that it made my life unmanageable, and that was the First Step, and I could stay on that one as long as I had to.

  And I was in no great rush to get past it. They began most of the meetings I went to with a reading of the steps, and even if they didn’t there’d be a list of them hanging on the wall where you couldn’t help reading it. The Fourth Step was a detailed personal inventory, and you sat down and wrote it out. The Fifth Step was confessional—you shared all that shit with another human being, most likely your sponsor.

  Some people, Jim said, stayed sober for decades without ever doing the steps.

  I thought about the steps and missed a few beats of what Jack was saying, but when I tuned in he was talking about Green Haven, saying it was probably the best thing that ever happened to him. It had introduced him to the program.

  “I went to meetings because it was a chance to sit in a chair and zone out for an hour,” he said. “And it was easier to stay dry inside than it was to drink the awful shit cons brew up for themselves, or buy pills that the screws smuggled in. And, you know, I can’t say I blame alcohol for the turn my life took, because I chose it myself, but going to meetings it began to dawn on me that every time I got my ass in trouble, I was always high. I mean, like, invariably. It was me making the choice to do the crime, and it was me making the choice to take the drink or smoke the joint, but the two went together, you know, and I was seeing it for the first time. ”

  So he stayed sober in prison. Then they let him out and he came home to New York and got a room in an SRO hotel a couple of blocks from Penn Station, and by the third night he was drinking blended whiskey around the corner in a place called the Terminal Lounge.

  “So called because of its location,” he said, “but the name would have fit the place even if it had been in the middle of Jackson Heights. Fucking joint was the end of the line. ”

  Except of course it wasn’t. The line ran its zigzag course for another couple of years, during which time he stayed out of trouble with the law but couldn’t stay out of the bars. He’d go to meetings and begin to put a little time together, and then he’d have one of those oh-what-the-hell moments, and the next thing he knew he’d be in a bar, or taking a long pull on a bottle. He hit a few detoxes, and his blackouts started lasting longer, and he knew what the future held and didn’t see how he could avoid it.

  “You know, Matt,” he said, “when I was a kid, I decided what I was going to be when I grew up. Can you guess what it was? You give up? A cop. I was gonna be a cop. Wear the blue uniform, keep the public safe from crime. ” He picked up his coffee but his cup was empty. “I guess you were dreaming the same dream, but you went and did it. ”

  I shook my head. “I fell into it,” I said. “What I wanted to be was Joe DiMaggio. And, but for a complete lack of athletic ability, I might have made that dream come true. ”

  “Well, my handicap was a complete lack of moral fiber, and you know what I fell into. ”

  He kept drinking, because he couldn’t seem to help it, and he kept coming back to AA, because where the hell else was there for him to go? And then one day after a meeting an unlikely person took him aside and told him some home truths.

  “A gay guy, Matt, and I mean gay as a jay. Obvious about it, you know? Grew up in a lah-de-dah suburb, went to an Ivy League college, and now he designs jewelry. Plus he’s more than ten years younger’n I am, and he looks like a wind of more than twenty miles an hour could pick him up and whisk him off to Oz. Just the type I’m gonna turn to for advice, right?

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